Sondra Gilman (photographed with her husband, Celso Gonzalez-Falla) owns, arguably, one of the world’s finest photography collections and it is one of the big treats of this job, that we were able to see part of it in her lovely Upper East Side townhouse. The house is also filled with paintings and sculpture—in passing she pointed out where a grandchild had cracked a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture: “You can’t get upset about it.”
In addition to her passion for photography, she has dedicated much of her life to American theater, producing, promoting education within the theater and remaining deeply involved in the American Theater Wing (owner of the Tonys) as well as sitting on numerous boards. She wishes she could be more frivolous (“I’ve always been seeking it …”) but she has tremendous warmth and a fierce commitment to whatever she does agree to take on—which is a great deal. One more thing, a compliment that we know she will like—it was so easy to listen to the tape we made of her interview because she has old-fashioned, perfect diction.
So what it was that got you started in collecting photography as opposed to collecting paintings?
I had an epiphany. I was a fine art major and photography just didn’t exist. I was on junior council at MoMA and I was trotting through the museum and I tripped over a [Eugène] Atget show—I literally had an epiphany. I ended up buying the three Atget [images] for $250 each and everybody thought I was insane. This was in the mid-70s. They had no value.
I mean you couldn’t give away a photograph at that time. Nobody was buying photos then.
And what do you think it was you saw in those images?
You know it’s very hard for me to describe. I have a friend of mine who is a curator and I say to him [about work she loves] ‘You know my stomach flipped over.’ And he says to me ‘What do you mean your stomach flipped over!? You can do better than that!” and I say, ‘No! Everything that I’ve learned, everything that has gone into my head goes through my stomach!’ [Laughs] [Those images] just touched something so deep inside of me that I hadn’t even known existed.
Can you tell us what the deliberations were like when you eventually ended up heading photography acquisition and working on the Exhibitions Committee at the Whitney?
Well, we had to start philosophically because at that point [the 1990s] we had missed a tremendous amount, and we decided we would concentrate on purchasing the work from the mid-70s on because they were the only things affordable. And then if there were any great bargains that came up, a Walker Evans or something like that, and could get something at a price we could afford.
And your own process of collecting — did you have a plan?
The interesting thing is that it was never to form a ‘collection’. We went out and we saw something and we bought it. And it wasn’t until we went on a microscopic tour and I looked at and suddenly saw there was a relationship, one work with another. And I had never seen it before.
I was looking at the ones going up the stairs; there’s a cohesion to it.
It’s the eye.
Where did you grow up?
I am a born and bred New York brat.
What did you do after you graduated from art school?
I ended up working for Walter Cronkite – as a Girl Friday. It was an era that will never be repeated. First of all he was true professional. Later on, somebody would write the script and put it in front of this pretty boy and he would get up and read it. Walter double-checked everything and he was a newsman.
What do you think it was that he picked you?
Because he thought I wasn’t an airhead. He sensed that I wasn’t frivolous … which I never have been … I’ve always been seeking it but I’ve never able to make it! [Laughs]
You do seem super-busy. Do you have a problem saying ‘no’ to things?
[Her husband, Celso, interjects]: Yes.
My life is very programmed. Too programmed. I said to Celso I would like to get up in the morning and have this day to just what I want to do.
What would you do?
Go to the movies! And a little dinner and just do nothing. I love movies but I never get to see them because I’m always going to the theatre. And I have to see every Broadway show.
Perhaps you can say something about where theatre is at the moment. I just read that rather sad article recently about the Neil Simon play closing.
That is a catastrophe! I loved it! I thought it was touching, I thought it was wonderful and the audience loved it. I don’t know what world we’re living in where something like that cannot succeed.
What does it tell you?
It tells me what appeals to people. I mean Julia Roberts appeared in “A Handful of Rain” well… she was too used to film where you barely do anything and the camera magnifies it so she never leapt across the footlights – but screaming crowds—I couldn’t believe it—screaming crowds! They blocked off the street and they were sold out every performance.
Occasionally one of the celebrities does a good job on stage, don’t they? Jude Law, for example.
He was very cute—the rest of the production was terrible—he was perfectly fine.
Ooh damning him with faint praise…
But the production was sold out.
I’m wondering if the Neil Simon play had had a famous person in it, it wouldn’t have closed.
I’m sure of it. You can’t get a ticket to see Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig [in “A Steady Rain”] … but I cannot say enough good things about that man [Hugh Jackman] because when he appeared in the show, do you know that he would perform eight performances a week and then on his two free afternoons and evenings, he would do anything that anybody had asked him? He gave so much to the community.
We’re fascinated about what goes with the Tony Awards.
My group, the American Theater Wing, physically owns the Tonys, but the group is also dedicated to promoting education [within the theater] and the other role is in recognizing excellence—the Tonys. And it’s not easy because [of the questions]: Is this a play with music or is it a musical? Is this a supporting actor or a lead? Sometimes you’ll get someone claiming to be a lead because the name is famous or you might get someone trying to shift their categories depending upon what else was strong. We solve all the problems before the nominations.
Are you starstruck when you meet famous actors?
No. I know too much about how neurotic they can be … but like Hugh Jackman … as a human being he is so wonderful! Oh my God, more people in theater should be like that!